There are stand-up comics who’d rather be playing Lear, tap dancers who dream of the Bolshoi and rap masters with Pagliacci in their souls. David Buskin and Robin Batteau, two of corporate America’s most pampered court musicians, cling to their own three-chord dream: They’re hoping folk music will make a comeback while they’re still young enough to catch the wave.
Buskin and Batteau, who write music for two competing New York jingle houses and battle each other savagely for commercial-break airtime, have been a folk-rock team since 1979. “It isn’t enough to do jingles,” says Buskin. “It’s like eating junk food all day long.”
The junk food simile may be a little unfortunate, since Buskin and Batteau both competed recently for a McDonald’s commercial that has yet to air. “They had whittled the choices down from 50 songs to just two—his and mine,” says Buskin, “and the little bastard won it.” But Buskin (who is about the same height as Batteau) bounced back, collaring his second Burger King account. (His music for the song behind the sizzle, due to hit the airwaves early next year, is, he jokes, “the usual—classic, timeless, eternal.”)
Batteau’s hit of the hour is Chevy’s ubiquitous “Heartbeat of America” commercial. Chevy had asked for “big corporate horns and strings,” but Batteau had a different idea. “Chevy began at the same time as rock ‘n’ roll, and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll was a combination of country and R&B,” he says. “You can hear that in the Chevy piece. It goes from this country-folk beginning to a sort of Aretha Franklin-ish R&B, and then it goes back to a kind of combination, an R&B underpinning with a country-flavored singing on top of it.” Those viewers who spend commercial breaks making sandwiches or attending to personal grooming will be unable, of course, to appreciate this exegesis.
Buskin, 43, first heard the siren song of folk music in 1962, when he was a guitar-picking student at Brown. “There was a moment there—just a moment, during the heyday of Peter, Paul and Mary—when folk music was a commercial success,” he says. By the time he got out of the Army in 1968, folk’s moment had passed, so Buskin’s two heavily acoustic solo albums didn’t sell. He spent nine years touring the college and coffeehouse circuit before joining a rock band called Pierce Arrow, where he met Batteau, who played guitar and violin. “It was a horrible experience,” says Buskin of the band, whose high point was as opening act during a Kinks tour. By the time Pierce Arrow crashed and burned in 1979, Buskin had begun writing songs with Batteau, a Harvard dropout and a veteran of a folk-rock group named Appaloosa.
The two have been together ever since, performing up to 150 gigs a year and making about as much money as you’d expect folkies to make. Five years ago Buskin hit a low point. “My father had just died, and my second marriage had broken up,” he says. “I just sat down and said, ‘I’m getting too old not to know where my next meal is coming from.’ I noticed that a lot of my friends who were singing on jingles had houses in Connecticut, and I thought maybe there was something to this.” Through a friend he got his first job at a jingle house.
Batteau, 39, resisted a little longer, partly because he was having some commercial success without having to do commercials. (He had produced the music for Return of the Secaucus Seven for instance.) About three years ago he gave in—and almost immediately hit the jingle equivalent of a home run with his music for “The Un-sinkable Taste of Cheerios” campaign.
Batteau’s other greatest hits include music for Schweppes, GE, Hardee’s and Lincoln-Mercury. Buskin has composed for NBC (“NBC—Just Watch Us Now,” which won him a Clio, the commercial Oscar), Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dr Pepper, JC Penney—and the U.S. Army. As writers, they can make up to $5,000 per jingle, plus much more in royalties if they perform on the ads.
Buskin and Batteau still remember Tom Paxton’s dictum that “every few years there’s a folk scare.” Indeed they are hoping to scare up some interest in their recently released third album, B&B. In the meantime they wrestle with the same creative problems that bedeviled, say, Beethoven. “Once I was trying to put together a Kentucky Fried Chicken campaign,” says Batteau. “I was sitting there working on it and not getting anywhere, so I went out and got some chicken. It was great, like Method acting. There was nothing particular about the grease or the crunch, but I was chicken. Then I tried it for Ty-D-Bol and it didn’t work.”
“Well, no wonder,” says Buskin. “That stuff tastes terrible.”